Will Sunday’s mishap involving the Patna-Indore Express -- India’s worst train tragedy in 6 years -- awaken the state-owned transporter to the urgent need to refocus on passenger safety issues?
Since the NDA government assumed office in 2014, the Indian Railways have been in a “transformative mode” with aims of increasing capacity and re-designing the business model. “Somewhere along the line, routine safety drills have taken a backseat and the 1 lakh-odd vacancies in the safety category have remained,” senior ministry sources said. Manoj Sinha, minister of state for railways, said that “rail fracture” could have caused the accident.
Rail fractures are “micro cracks” on rails that develop into “major cracks” following the passage of a train with heavy load. “Such accidents can only happen when Ultra Sonic Fault Detection (USFD) checks of tracks are not routinely done. Operating high or semi-high speeds at the current juncture will be risky,” an official said.
Sanjay Pandhi of the Indian Railways Loco Running Men Organisation (IRLRO) said that rail tracks had deteriorated on account of the business aims of the Indian Railways to run more and heavier trains.
Further, a ministry official admitted that there had been “grave deterioration” in observing safety drills. “Fittings required for annual maintenance work – clasps, rubber pads, etc - have remained in perennial short supply while officials engaged in safety jobs have become most negligent,” he said.
While railways minister Suresh Prabhu has been praised for his initiatives, sections have been critical of his decision to de-link the stores department from the mechanical (rolling stock) department. “We now have a situation when the ‘procurement’ department has no link with the ‘user’ department (rolling stock). This can impact passenger safety preparedness,” said sources.
“It is likely that Sunday’s accident will cause some heads to roll. But the problems run deeper. The required work attitude to prevent accidents is not there,” a senior official said.